Thursday, October 29, 2009

Aristotle: Federal Government Not A State

In Politics (1279-81) Aristotle argues that states exist for the sake of a good life. The Declaration of Independence restates this when Jefferson writes that rights include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", an Aristotelian as well as a Lockean formula. In fact, Jefferson had been trained in Greek and Latin, as were the majority of the Founders. Positing the pursuit of happiness as the chief constitutional goal was taken from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Politics, in which Aristotle posits "eudaimonia", normally translated as "happiness", as the chief object of human existence. As Jefferson and the Founders well knew, happiness was the product of a virtuous life. In Aristotle's view, the existence of virtue suggested the existence of God.

Aristotle insists that states do not exist for alliances or security from crime, or for economic exchange and commerce. Rather, "virtue must be the care of a state which is truly so called...for without this end the community becomes a mere alliance which differs only in place from alliances of which the members live apart; and law is only a convention, 'a surety to one another of justice,' as the sophist Lycophron says, and has no real power to make the citizens' good and just.

"This is obvious; for suppose distinct places such as Corinth and Megara, to be brought together so that their walls touched, still they would not be one city, not even if the citizens had the right to intermarry, which is one of the rights peculiarly characteristic of states. Again, if men dwelt at a distance from one another but not so far off as to have no intercourse, and there were laws among them that they should not wrong each other in their exchanges, neither would this be a state. Let us suppose that one man is a carpenter, another a husbandman, another a shoemaker and so on and that their number is ten thousand: nevertheless, if they have nothing in common but exchange, alliance and the like, that would not constitute a state...It is clear then that a state is not merely a society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families and aggregations of families in well-being, for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. Such a community can only be established among those who live in the same place and intermarry. Hence arise in cities family connexions, brotherhoods, common sacrifices, amusements which draw men together. But these are created by friendship, for the will to live together is friendship. The end of the state is the good life, and these are the means towards it. And the state is the union of families and villages in a perfect and self-sacrificing life, by which we mean a happy and honourable life.

"Our conclusion, then, is that political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue."

But is the United States a nation that encourages virtue? The United States has increasingly disowned the Christian religion, which for many, likely a majority, is the foundation of virtue. The United States does not offer in the place of Christianity a coherent definition of virtue. Many argue for secular humanism, an inarticulate, disjoint set of claims that devolves into special interest brokerage, the commercial contracting which Aristotle argues cannot be the foundation of a living state.

The recent bailout rejects virtue in the interest of opportunism. Forgetting the claim (which I say elsewhere is nonsensical) that the bailout was necessary to prevent a "depression", to what degree is a nation that rewards sloth and incompetence with a large share of the national wealth one that is committed to virtue?

Moreover, and this is the point of greatest interest to me, I do not think that Americans share a common definition of virtue. On the one hand, the Progresssives and secular humanists reject traditional Christianity, preferring instead a Social Gospel based on violent redistribution and capricious definitions of "positive rights," which are whatever the whims of Wall Street and the New York Times say they are. On the other hand, liberals (libertarians) and traditionalists of various kinds reject the socialism of the Democratic Party and the Rockefeller Republicans and believe in the traditional virtues of religion and freedom.

I do not think that a reconciliation is possible. America is no longer a nation with a shared sense of virtue. It is no longer a state.

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